For many families, the tradition of hanging Christmas stockings by the chimney with care (as the song goes) is one of the sweetest parts of the holidays, and it is often the last thing the children do before they go to sleep on Christmas Eve. These decorated, personalized Christmas stockings -- some with LED lights and some comically oversized -- have evolved over time. No written record exists of the first stocking ever hung, but many holiday historians trace the tradition back to a story like this one, from the St. Nicholas Center website:
"There was a man, once rich, who had fallen on hard times. Now poor, he had three daughters of an age to be married. ... This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery, or worse. Word of the family's misfortune reached Nicholas, who had the wealth inherited from his parents. Coming in secret by night, he tossed a bag of gold into the house. It sailed in through an open window, landing in a stocking left before the fire to dry ... and the watchful father leaped up and caught the fleeing donor. 'Ah, Nicholas, it is you!' cried the father, 'You have saved my daughters from certain disaster.' Nicholas, embarrassed, and not wishing to be known, begged the man to keep his identity secret. 'You must thank God alone for providing these gifts in answer to your prayers for deliverance.'"
Another variation on this story is that St. Nicholas threw balls of gold, not bags, which had led to the tradition of displaying three gold ball ornaments, or three oranges to represent the three gold balls, as a symbol of St. Nicholas.
Many families still maintain the tradition of adding an orange to each Christmas stocking -- in addition to those video games and gift cards that are now staples of holiday stocking stuffers -- a nod to St. Nicholas' gifts of gold, and hope and love to good people.
In European holiday history, children would hang their everyday socks by the fireplace, awaiting presents of fruits or sweets. Some histories connect the stocking tradition with the Germanic/Scandinavian god Odin. Children in these regions would fill their shoes with carrots, sugar or straw as gifts for Odin's flying horse, Sleipnir. Odin would replace those gifts with presents for the children. This still occurs today in some regions of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
St. Nicholas has often been merged with various mythical figures, including a grandmother figure in Italy, but he remains the face of Santa Claus. That name is thought to be a derivation of the Dutch Sinterklaas, the name for their gift-giving holiday icon. Dutch children would set out their wooden shoes filled with hay and carrots for Sinterklaas's horse, and -- if they've been good all year -- hopefully receive sweets and treats in their shoes in the morning.
St. Nicholas historians say that he was a charitable man overall, often giving out clothing, food and furniture to the needy. He knew that many poor children worked for their family's survival, and this did not sit well with his belief that childhood should be savored and enjoyed. This concern turned into the practice of gifting children with sweets and little gifts.
Stuffed stockings keep alive the idea that if you are good, if you help your family and if you are kind and generous to animals and the less fortunate, you will be acknowledged for your goodness and rewarded with a gift more valuable in meaning than in price.
And to the naughty, a lump of coal in their stockings.